If you’re anything like me, then you are always trying to improve your writing skills. If you’re a lot like me then you are probably a perfectionist who is afraid of writing bad fiction and you worry too much about what others will think about your work. This may even freeze you up to the point where you spend more time thinking about writing than actually writing. At some point you need to say, “Who cares what others think?” Even so, we writers must practice to improve. So where’s a good place to start?

While there are many tools you can use to strengthen your writing, today I’ll share three of my favorites that have greatly helped me.

Prompts

These are literally all over the Internet, and they are quite popular. Some are better than others, but there are some good sites that host weekly prompts with a lot of participation and interaction. The community involvement is a great way to get feedback and encouragement, and it allows you to build friendships with other writers.

Prompts can be a lot like scales for musicians. Once you get your fingers and your mind working together, you’ll soon find yourself improvising and coming up with new material. Since many prompts usually have short deadlines, don’t expect to write the next bestseller in one shot. However, you might just come up with a seedling story that turns into a solid story. You’ll have to work at it during the editing process. I like to think of prompts as warm up exercises.

Two sites on WordPress that offer regular prompts are the Six Word Story Challenge at Sometimes Stellar Storyteller (though for some reason this site has been recently marked private), and the flash fiction challenge at Carrot Ranch. If it’s blog prompts you want, look no farther than Daily Prompts by The Daily Post on WordPress. You can also click the drop down menu for more prompts and ideas once there. If you’re on WP, try typing “prompts” into the search bar on your Reader and you’ll find a lot more.

Outside of a community environment, you can check out Ryan Lanz’s book The Idea Factory where he offers 1,000 story ideas and prompts. I have not read it yet but it looks like a great resource.

Practice Exercises

Open up any book on writing and you’ll find some great practice exercises. While you may find an exercise that gets you to write an entire story, more than likely they will be short, pithy things to get you thinking about plot, character, pacing, dialogue, exposition, etc. I occasionally like to dip back into a couple of my favorite writing books: John Gardner’s classic The Art of Fiction and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (take your pick of the editions). Both of these offer a lot of exercises which will charge up your brain to practice and improve your fiction, regardless of whether you write short stories or novels. Burroway’s book is great for students (I believe she uses it in her college courses–thus all the editions), while Gardner’s skips a lot of the basics and focuses more on advanced techniques to help you improve at the “art of fiction” as the title implies.

Until recent years, there haven’t been many writing books that focus on flash fiction. At the top of my list is The Rose Metal Press Field Guide for Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara Masih. Tara gives an in depth history of flash fiction in the introduction–a great read by itself. The rest of the book features various exercises as taught be different writers, as well as an example story. The exercises are so varied that you’ll find inspiration all over this book. Buy it now. I’ll wait here for you to come back.

Just last week I discovered another book called Brevity. It goes for about $25 but it looks dense and in depth. This book covers a variety of flash forms and, while I haven’t read it yet either, it’s definitely going to the top of my list for craft books.

If you’re a novelist looking for something to challenge and level-up your writing, check out Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. It is basically a transcription of one of his semester courses and details his technique for writing a novel from beginning to end. While it does not contain traditional exercises per se, Butler’s approach is rather unique. He offers some practice exercises to help you get into your “unconscious,” much like journaling. You’ll learn how to write “moment to moment through the senses” and how to take your characters, scenes, and plot to a deeper, more symbolic level; that is, to the level of literary art. Read any of his short stories or novels and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about. He makes it look easy, but it’s very challenging.

While Butler is neither a “plotter” nor a “pantser,” he does seem to utilize more of a plotting approach. In his book he teaches you how to first dream up all the scenes in your story, jot them down, and then organize them once you feel your scenes are all down. Once your story is ready to be written, you write it going in order from one scene to the next. The beauty of this is that once you are writing, you don’t have to worry about majorly rearranging your plot or searching for inspiration. Now you are simply allowing your inspiration and creativity flow. He does say that this is mainly for novels and that for short stories you almost have to be a “draft writer,” but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for a longer short story or even a novella. From Where You Dream is an excellent and inspiring book.

Pastiches

These are my all time favorite exercises! At some point you have to put aside the practice exercises and actually get writing. Doing a pastiche of another story is a great transition from “exercise” to actually writing your own story. I learned about them from a friend who got his MFA in fiction and studied with Richard Bausch and the late Alan Cheuse. When I used to entertain the idea of getting an MFA myself, he told me I didn’t really need it. His advice was to read and write in equal parts, and do pastiches. What’s a pastiche?

It’s part study exercise/part rip off. It helps to read an entire collection of stories by one author. Once you get a feel for the writer’s style, voice, etc., you begin a story of your own in that author’s own way of writing–about 250 words for starters. You’ll want to change up the various elements. Maybe you use one of the characters and put him or her in a different environment. Maybe you take the author’s voice or style and make up a fresh story just like it. I once took Sherwood Anderson’s story “Queer” and continued it where Anderson left off, trying to keep to the author’s characterization, voice, and style.

Whatever you do, you are trying to copy something about the author in order to better understand how they wrote the story. By the end of the exercise you’ll have a better grasp of how great stories are written, and with any luck you’ll have the draft of a decent story which you can continue working on. Or you can just toss the piece of crap and move on to the next story.

Pastiches help you to focus in on an author’s technique in a practical way. You can analyze a story all day long and still be a terrible fiction writer. Writing pastiches takes you a step closer. Sort of like dismantling a piece of tech to see how it works. Try it. You’ll like it.

Final Thoughts

I’ve found that there has to be a balance between reading and writing fiction; studying and practicing your craft. I go through seasons where I just can’t write or edit old stories but I may read through a few collections or a novel. Lately I’m just too busy to give the time and energy to some stories that are begging to be finished. I know what needs to happen, but I don’t have the extended quiet time to focus on completing them. I do, however, manage to create some flash fiction pieces or the occasional poem.

Recently I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in about a week or two (fast reading for me). Due to its post-apocalyptic nature, it fed me some much needed inspiration and style lessons on a near-apocalyptic novel I’ve had since 2013. I even attempted a pastiche of my own to better understand the author’s style in this particular context.

To recap, we learned about Prompts, Practice Exercises, and Pastiches. Very good. Now, go get writing and report back to me how it worked.

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